Teryl Austin, here with the Florida Gators, has been hired as the Lions' new defensive coordinator. (Doug Benc / Getty Images)
Allen Park — You can see the logic and the wisdom in the way Lions coach Jim Caldwell is building his staff.
On defense, he’s hired a first-time coordinator in Teryl Austin, one who has paid his dues and is chomping at the bit to run his own defense. And he’s buffered by retaining two defensive line coaches from the previous administration (Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek), and hired a veteran former coordinator to coach the linebackers (Bill Sheridan).
“Bill Sheridan is a guy of immense talent and experience,” Caldwell said Friday. “When you look at him, he’s been a coordinator in this league. He’s certainly coached linebackers, he’s worked in multiple systems and has a real clear understanding of defensive football.
“He’s a guy who I think can really give us some balance. We have some experience and we have some guys that maybe can give us an opportunity to kind of work in concert with some of our youthful exuberance.”
Sheridan and Austin are former Michigan assistants. Sheridan was born in Detroit, graduated from Warren DeLaSalle High and Grand Valley State, and coached at Royal Oak Shrine from 1981-84. He was the defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers the last two seasons and coached the Dolphins (2010-11) and Giants (2005-08) linebackers.
“Anytime you have an extensive amount of experience in this league, it’s worth its weight in gold,” Caldwell said. “It’s not absolute because I came from the college ranks and had no experience in this league and coached the quarterbacks at Tampa and it didn’t bother Tony (Dungy) at all during that time. I just think it depends on the person.
“But it does lend you to believe he’s seen every team probably in the league, understands most concepts that he’s going to see, how to defend them and things of that nature.”
While a first-time coordinator, Austin is hardly a novice. He brings 22 years defensive coaching experience to the table, including coaching the secondary of the Ravens the last three seasons.
“Teryl, first of all, loves the game of football and has a real good understanding of both the back end of it — talking about in the secondary, where he’s coached for a number of years — but then also the front of it as well,” Caldwell said. “He’s a very good teacher, an instructor, has a great passion for it. He’s demanding and that’s the reason why, obviously, I think he’ll be a great fit.
“He’s a talented guy that I think the guys are going to absolutely love. They’re going to love him not only because of the fact that he’s a great communicator and a great person to be around, but he brings a lot of energy and he’s very demanding.”
In all, Caldwell retained eight assistants from Jim Schwartz’s staff — Washburn, Kocurek, special teams coordinator John Bonamego, offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, running backs coach Curtis Modkins, tight ends coach Bobby Johnson, assistant offensive line coach Terry Heffernan and quality control-special teams coach Evan Rothstein.
Johnson, who coached the tight ends last season, is expected to be an assistant offensive line coach. Heffernan will be an offensive assistant.
You can also see the logic and wisdom behind Caldwell’s decision to keep an unusually large contingent of coaches from the previous regime.
The offensive line is relatively young and strong, so he maintained the continuity by retaining the position coach and an assistant. The defensive line is also young, strong and, committed to playing a 4-3 scheme — so he retained the defensive line coaches.
And, the special teams units were arguably the most improved facet of the team last year.
Certainly, the news of those coaches returning will be applauded by the players. Several of the offensive linemen spoke on Washburn’s behalf after the season.
“It’s very important to us,” left guard Rob Sims said of Washburn being retained. “Our offensive line has talent. People could be talking about us like they do the New York Giants’ defensive line. I think when I am long gone from here people could still be talking about the Lions offensive line.
“There is a culture that we have been developing here and he’s a huge part of that,” Sims said.
Said center Dominic Raiola: “He did a lot. He brought the best out of us every week, so what can I say? I love the guy like a brother. We’re almost the same age, you know? I am proud to call him my O-line coach.”
There was similar respect for the defensive line coaches.
“(Kocurek) is part of the reason I am here now,” defensive end Willie Young said. “I enjoy playing for him. I learned a whole lot from Kris Kocurek, so I have nothing but positive things to say about him. Hell of a coach.”
Tight end Joseph Fauria credited Johnson with showing him how to be a pro.
“I love him to death,” Fauria said. “Coming from being an undrafted guy and being pegged as can’t block, can’t do this, bad character, whatever you want to call it — I’ve proved that wrong and really most of it was on him teach me and pointing me in the right direction.”
The biggest vacancy yet filled is offensive coordinator. The Lions have shown interest in Rutgers offensive coordinator Ron Prince, Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and Chiefs assistant head coach David Culley for the position.
Caldwell said he will be hiring a defensive backs coach. He has interviewed Vance Joseph, who coached defensive backs in Houston the last three seasons.